Graphic design notes #2: Lorem ipsum

by dufblog

lorem ipsum2

I may not have an easy relationship with Lorum ipsum but, for better or worse, I cannot deny that it has been a long-term presence in my life.

I first came across this piece of jumbled Latin text as a young child in the 1970s when my grandfather, who worked as a commercial artist, used to bring me and my sisters stacks of half-used sheets of Letraset that included Lorum ipsum for use in our ‘art works’. To me, at the time, when applied to my drawings the text had the effect of instantly making them look more grown up and accomplished.

These days my feelings about Lorum ipsum are less positive. As a graphic designer I will on occasion resort to using dummy text in place of real words in a design project in progress, although I don’t particularly agree with this way of working. For me graphic design is all about content  – remove that and the design is inevitably dumbed down too. On the other hand my experience of working in graphic design is that it’s an iterative process, and I have to concede that sometimes it is the case that content and design can benefit mutually from being developed in tandem.

Lorum ipsum was first used not by designers but in the sample books of typesetters and printers. It originated in the 1500s when a printer scrambled a passage of Latin text to illustrate his typesetting skills, not wanting words with meaning to distract from the finesse of his work. The same nonsensical piece of text has been in continuous circulation ever since. In around 1980 an American academic traced the long forgotten source of the text to two passages from a work by Cicero, ‘The Extremes of Good and Evil’, which was written in 45BC.

In the 1960s, Lorum ipsum was adopted by Letraset for its sheets of dry transferable lettering, which were used extensively in the commercial art and advertising industries of the time. It went digital in 1985 when it was included as dummy text in the early desktop publishing program Pagemaker (the program also incorporated ‘Greek pictures’ or greyscale boxes in place of real images, which the computer memories of the time were unable to render). It was at this point that the practice of using Lorum ipsum as dummy – rather than display – text became widespread in graphic design. Today, it’s a feature of many web design programs too.

My problem with dummy text as it’s used today is that it sets up a trap that is all too easy for graphic designers to fall prey to: low expectations on the client side of what can and should be achieved by design. The most effective graphic design can only be achieved when the designer is able to fully engage with the content they’re working with. Lorum ipsum, however, was created for precisely the opposite reason: to prevent engagement with content.